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A Dog’s Heart, Rastakov at the Colosseum November 25, 2010

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On cold, wintry Moscow street a starving dog is dying. Puppeteers creep around the stage to move his legs and tail, as singers give us his internal monologue, a soprano (Elena Vassilieva) whimpering and growling doglike through a megaphone, and a counter-tenor (Andrew Watts) giving us his self-pitying but more pleasant side.

There’s a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me

He drifts off into unconsciousness, dreaming he is floating. But fate isn’t quite ready for him, and he wakes to the smell of a sausage offered by Prof. Filipp Filippovitch (Steven Page), and follows him home.   The flat is large, with seven rooms, walls moving as we move between them.  Filipp Filippovitch’s patients visit him, keen to have his rejuvenating transplants.  But this is Russia in the 1920s, and the house committee want to  reallocate part of his flat, a move he avoids by speaking to another of his grateful patients, a  senior Party official.

The operation (borrowed from the ENO)

Filipp Filippovitch has plans for the dog, feeding him up, encouraging him to feel at home and calling him Sharik (Russian equivalent of Fluffy).  Soon he too is in the surgery, having a human’s testes and pancras transplanted and  Filipp Filippovitch turns him into a man, Sharikov.  First the dog puppet appears with a human head, a small, deformed creature, and then he transforms into a man, still deformed, with a Phantom-like scarred face.  In an excellent performance by Peter Hoare, he leaps and crouches around the stage,  a man playing a dog, rather than completely transformed.

He is a base kind of man, fixated on his ‘rights’, unable to control his urges for vodka, women or chasing cats, but finds himself a niche as the city cat-catcher, with the help of his friend Shvonder, the chairman of the house committee.  After one outrage too many, and the extremely operatic death of his fiancee, Filipp Filippovitch operates again, and turns him back into a dog.

It’s a complex for an opera, particularly one where the libretto is often incomprehensible and those of us in row B develop cricks in our necks reading the surtitles.  The story is a scathing satire on the Soviet system, where the proletariat degenerate into a subhuman pack, and those with power and position can subvert the state’s rules.  Like Frankenstein’s monster, the Dog is a pathetic creature, a perfectly nice dog but an unpleasant human focussed on his ‘rights’ and cruel to others.  Is it that we’re better off in our appointed place, or that an oppressive society brings out the worst in us all?

The story is based on a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, written in 1925 but only finally published in  the USSR a few years before the fall of communism.

This is Simon McBurney’s first opera, and as with any Complicite production, it is elaborate and varied, telling the story through words, music, movement, puppetry and occasionally film.  The Dog is a puppet, and so are the cats he chases.   At one point, the stage is full of them, with their puppeteers, as the cat-catcher comes to life.  The set itself moves, and deteriorates as the performance progresses, with holes knocked in walls.  The shades of Frankenstein are obvious, with a hint of Animal Farm, and perhaps a little of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in the chorus of dour proletarians keen to bring down the Professor.

It’s a spectacular, captivating, thought-provoking work, which would bear another viewing.  If you get the chance, there are four more performances at the Colosseum, where it runs until 4 December.  Ticket prices are from £11 to £52, and seat B6 in the stalls was a little close, particularly given the need to read the surtitles.  Get one further back, and in the middle, if you can.

The Devil is An Ass, at the White Bear November 21, 2010

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A raucous city where hustlers set up scams to trap the unwary, new plays open and the glitterati must be seen in all their finery, where a devil comes to learn about vice and a young man tries to seduce his lover away from her husband. This energetic, playful revival of one of Ben Jonson’s later plays was written in 1616, is set in a Hogarthian Georgian England which could almost be London today.

The play opens as Pug, a devil, is keen to learn about vice, and of course London is just the place. The Chief Devil lets him go, and tells him to become the servant of Fabian Fitzdottrel and hone his devilish skills. He arrives, taking the body of a recently executed cutpurse, just as his new master is selling young Wittipol a few minutes audience with his wife for a fancy cloak. And in the background, Everill and Train plot to cheat Fitzdottrel of his lands and money. The characters romp through the next couple of hours, wheeling, dealing and cheating, though a few prove virtuous and honest, at least after a little prompting.

The players are a new small company, Spartan Dogs, plus a few friends to make up a cast which was almost bigger than the audience on Friday night. There should be full houses for this – its only a small theatre, and a very entertaining couple of hours. The language flows clearly, and hints of the circus add to the slightly fantastical feel of it all. At the interval, cast members chat to the audience, commenting on furs and selling toffee apples, nice ones with fresh apples inside.

The Devil is an Ass plays at the White Bear in Kennington until 5 December 2010. Tickets £13/£10.

The Two-Character Play, at the Jermyn St Theatre October 26, 2010

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Tennesse Williams described this play as a cri de coeur, coming out of the pain of his sister, who was lobotomised after accusing their father of abusing her, and his own nervous breakdown.  It’s a confusing, disturbing play within a play, where a brother and sister are actors in a play about an agorophobic brother and sister, and slip fluidly between the play, and the play within.  Its about madness, fear, the love and ties between siblings and the barriers that insanity erects.

To play with fear is to play with fire.  No, worse, much worse than playing with fire.  Fire has limits.  It comes to a river or sea and there it stops, it comes to a stone or bare earth that it can’t leap across and there is stopped, having nothing more to consume.  But fear …

Catherine Cusack is excellent as the sister, nervous, tense but controlled, just this side of a breakdown.  Paul McEwan as the brother is a little less convincing in the first half, where his accent makes his speech less clear, though he well and truly comes into his own in the second.  There’s a palpable closeness and tension between the two of them, protecting each other, and, in the tiny, claustrophobic space of the Jermyn St Theatre, smothering each other as well.

It’s not a comfortable evening, but it’s well worth seeing.  The Two-Character Play runs at the Jermyn St Theatre until 20 November.  Tickets £18.

A Country Girl, at the Apollo October 19, 2010

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It’s a quiet Monday night and I have a very cheap ticket, so I find myself in the middle of the stalls at the Apollo, watching Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove in A Country Girl.   The reviews haven’t been great, the buzz on the theatre boards is of ‘care-home telly’ and a dated, woodenly-acted play more suited to provincial rep than the West End.  And yet…

Martin Shaw’s Frank Elgin is an actor with flashes of brilliance between crises of confidence and alcoholic benders.  He’s offered his last chance at a major part by an ambitious young director whose leading man has just fallen through.  Jenny Seagrove’s Georgie Elgin is his wife and enabler, playing out a co-dependent role from which she doesn’t quite want to break free.  Don’t most of us know a couple like that, though perhaps without the flashes of brilliance to relieve the desperation of it all?  Seagrove is calm and dignified, sometimes talking the talk of leaving but, in an utterly believeable way, never quite walking.   Shaw gives us enough of the attraction of her husband, his need for her and his talent, to show why she puts up with his lies and self-destruction.  The strength of the play is in the chemistry between these two powerful actors.

The play itself is fairly ordinary, and somewhat dated.  Would any stage manager today call a leading actor ‘Nancikins’ and treat her like a schoolgirl?  The American accents straight out of drama classes jar a little, and the sets are a bit clunky, with set changes staged as mini-scenes in themselves.  As so often seems to be the case with West End plays, its not something I’d pay West End prices for, but if you can get a cheaper ticket (its on tkts), its a decent evening’s entertainment.

A Country Girl runs at the Apollo Theatre until February 2011 with ticket prices £20 to £65, though you should be able to do better elsewhere.  J12 in the stalls was a very good seat.

After the Dance, at the National August 14, 2010

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Sometimes, theatre hurts.  Sometimes, a well-made drawing room drama full of elegant people and witty lines comes up from behind and attacks, but it does it so beautifully that you’re grateful.   After the Dance, Terrance Rattigan’s tale of  1920s  socialites growing older and desperately trying to stay bright young things in the face of the Depression and the approaching war,  is such a play.

The Scott-Fowlers have been happily, if rather distantly, married for 12 years, and are the mainstay of their Mayfair set.  They  have a long-term houseguest, John and a secretary, Peter, with whose  fiance Helen David Scott-Fowler falls in love, and a set of stereotypical 30s B-listers – a drug addicted aviatrix, a wealthy socialite with an eastend toyboy, the former lover who’s become ‘serious’ and runs a window washing business in Manchester.  Everything is extremely well lubricated (“Everybodies a bore unless you drink”) and they dance around each other almost never saying what they mean.

Nancy Carroll is superb as the gay hostess Joan Scott-Fowler, intent on gossip and frippery, drinking her way through life, refusing to be ‘boring’.  There’s something terribly fragile about it all, and when she finally breaks, even with the stilted emphasis on being ‘in love’,  the agony is painfully real.

Picture shamelessly borrowed from the Guardian

But it is the questions posed by the central character, David Scott-Fowler, that  really resound.  What do you do when you realise your life has been meaningless?  When you don’t like who you are, but know that to change would be impossible?  When you’re smart enough to see your faults, but not strong enough to change?   Played by a far more serious Benedict Cumberbatch than we’ve had in Sherlock, he takes us through the painful reality of a destructive mid-life crisis step by self-absorbed step.  Cumberbatch is wonderful, with a voice that could be standing right beside you even at the back of the Lyttleton, a large theatre.  I think I’d be happy listening to that man read a phone book.

When this play was first performed, in 1939, it ran to sellout audiences which suddenly disappeared when war broke out, and was rarely performed again.  I wish I’d caught it earlier in its run, as it would reward seeing again, but sadly, it finished on Wednesday.  It is a classic.

Boris Bikes – Love them, getting a bit frustrated. August 9, 2010

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Yesterday, I took a Boris bike from Eversholt St down to the National Theatre. Cycling through Bloomsbury and the West End, on back streets with very little traffic is a real joy, and then over Waterloo Bridge, pedalling as fast as I could because roadworks mean there’s no room to move over and let the buses pass. Sorry folks, hope you enjoyed the view (the river, not me).

Going home though, I caught the bus. It’s not that I didn’t want to get a bike, but none of the ones in the rack outside the Lion King would open for me. I was worried – what if I hadn’t managed to dock the first one properly, and was now clocking up huge bills, or facing a £300 fine if it was lost. The call centre was no help, just a human answering machine to take details and ‘call you back’, maybe.

Back home, and on the website, it is clear that the bike had been returned, but I notice a few extras. A journey I hadn’t made, an annual subscription and an extra key, later reversed. My account page is a load of nonsense. I’m not out of pocket, but I don’t trust these people with my credit card.

Like our latin-quoting mop-top mayor, it all looks great fun, but once you get down to the detail, there are some serious problems which, if not dealt with quickly could turn the scheme into a PR (and perhaps real) nightmare. I hope there’s someone sensible dealing with it – it might be time to stop taking new applications, and certainly not to send transactions to banks, until the systems have been thoroughly tested. And from a PR point of view, it would be nice to hear some clear communication, rather than the email I got yesterday, reminding me that if I didn’t dock a cycle properly I’d be liable for the fine.

In the meantime, I guess a little caution is called for – perhaps take a photo of the bike in the dock when you return it (the receipt printers on the kiosks are apparently not very reliable), take regular snapshots of your online account.

I hope these are teething problems, and are sorted soon. This scheme is far too good an idea to let implementation botch-ups get in the way.

Bicycle, Bicycle August 1, 2010

Posted by CamdenKiwi in : London , add a comment

About thirty years ago, I had a nasty bicycle accident on my way home from school, and I’ve never quite had the courage to use them since, but Boris’ new bikes might just change all that.  I’ve registered, and have a key so this afternoon I took the plunge and had a little wobble around the quiet streets of Somers Town.

The bikes are heavy and solid, with three gears, dynamo lights and a comfortable seat.  The bar is ‘ladies’ style, so you could ride it in a skirt, and there is a full cover over the chain, so your trousers won’t catch.  They won’t be winning any races, but might just win a few hearts.

Certainly, I attracted a lot of attention cycling around Somers Town, and spent most of my first half hour explaining it to people.   If you want more information, its all on the transport for london site.

Barclays '£25 million invested in bikes, £7300 million invested in bombs'

£25 million invested in bikes, £7300 million invested in bombs

And I’m very pleased to see that they’re already being subverted.  Who could let Barclay’s sponsorship escape unmentioned?

Arden of Faversham, at the Rose Theatre June 14, 2010

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Is this a tragedy, comedy, tragical-comical or comical-tragical? The unknown author, who probably wasn’t William Shakespeare but may have been Thomas Kyd, seems to have started out writing a comedy, and then changed their mind. It’s like a modern sit-com, mostly light entertainment, but occasional something quite serious happens. In fact, it is a ‘domestic tragedy’ and, like A Yorkshire Tragedy, based on a real incident.

Arden of Faversham (Mark Carlisle) is a respectable chap, nice enough, but unfortunately his wife (Rachel Dale), her lover (Jonathan Woolf) and Green , who’s land he’s appropriated, all want to kill him. They hire a pair of London ruffians to do the deed, but these two turn out to be a right pair of clowns, and repeated fail. It’s almost a sixteenth century keystone caper. In the meantime, the wife and the lover seem to have the sort of relationship that would have Mariella Frostrup telling her to learn some self-respect. He’s clearly after her money, and she’s caught in one of those unpleasant, vaguely masochistic things where she can’t cope with his rejection, but knows its not right.

The Rose in Southwark is another tiny space, a raised platform overlooking the archaeological dig of the original Rose theatre where this play was first performed over 400 years ago. We sit along the wall, with the actors between us and the red lights outlining the area of the original theatre. It’s a small audience, and a strong bladder is needed for a two hour play with no interval and no loo on the premises, but well worth it.

Perhaps its just as well the theatre isn’t full, as the ruffians give us some excellent clowning, creeping behind the chairs, telling me to ‘sshhh’ while they stake out Arden on his way back from dinner, getting someone in the front row to hold their pistol and at one point, picking up my shoe (sore feet, slipped my shoes off).

The cast is energetic and enthusiastic with good performances from all. Its a rare chance to see a play which was once very popular but now not often performed.

Arden of Faversham runs at the Rose Theatre until 7 July. Tickets £8-10.

Romeo and Juliet at the Leicester Square Theatre June 11, 2010

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In Mussolini’s Italy, the Capulets are blackshirts and the Montagues are Jewish. With very slight changes to the script and an extra prologue to bring the play into 1939, this works well. Capulet (Greg Gee), Paris (Dan Moore) and Tybalt (Martin Dickenson) have a fascist confidence in their own superiority, the right of a renaissance father to dispose of his daughter as he pleases sickeningly apt. Olivia Vinall is a convincing and sensitive Juliet, well and truly the star of the piece.

The tiny space of the basement in the Leicester Square Theatre has no room for a balcony. The audience area, with dining chairs and a bar feels like a thirties cabaret, barely separated from the set. Combined with the music, much of it played live by the actors, the whole space invokes a tense Verona with violence never far away.

This is not the sumptuous, multifaceted Shakespeare you get at the RSC. It’s pared down, with a small cast and smaller budget, getting to the tragedy at the heart of the play and laying it bare. This theatre should be very full.

Romeo and Juliet runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 11 July and tickets are £15-20.

Reflections on Jeanette Fitzsimmons in Camden May 31, 2010

Posted by CamdenKiwi in : New Zealand,Politics , 1 comment so far

It was quite a treat yesterday to go to a small meeting of the NZ Greens here in Camden, with the former leader of the NZ Greens, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, and her husband Harry Parke. Jeanette recently left the New Zealand Parliament, after 14 years as an MP. She first gained a seat when New Zealand switched to a proportional representation system in 1996 and has the distinction of being the only Green MP to have won a constituency seat under NZs ‘Mixed Member Proportional’ electoral system. In MMP, the country elects half its MPs to individual constituencies and the other half from party lists, thus ensuring that politics retains a local element while the parliament reflects the overall voting choice of electors. It’s so different, and so much fairer, than the antiquated first past the post system we use for Westminster and local Councils here.

Having observed our recent elections, she told us that people back in NZ thought it quite funny that everyone here was getting worked up about a ‘hung’ parliament and a coalition – coalitions are the norm in New Zealand, as indeed they are in most democracies.

Her advice to Greens in the UK is to work for electoral reform above everything else.

Its a simple message, and one I believe the Green Party here should take to heart. Our one Green MP is a fantastic achievement, but could so easily be reversed at the next election. We gained less than 2% of the vote, and our 285000 voters are represented by our one MP. In European and London elections, we regularly get 10-15% of the vote, suggesting that we have a strong appeal, but people are reluctant to vote for us for Westminster because we’re very unlikely to win. Locally, we have about 10% of the council vote in Camden, and only one councillor elected this time.

If politics is the best way to achieve change then the first change must be a fair way of electing politicians.

Jeanette went on to talk about some of her thoughts on the way that New Zealand was tackling climate change, or not tackling climate change, with the new National (Tory) government being unusually sceptical and reluctant to implement carbon reduction measures. And then she said something which was very obvious, made complete sense, and which had never occured to me before. She said that we could have all the renewables in the world, all the efficiency measures, but it didn’t matter a jot unless the coal stays in the ground.

New Zealand has about 8.6 billion tonnes of economic reserves of low quality coal, and the state-owned coal company seems hell-bent on mining it and using it in whatever way they can. This means open-cast mining in Otago and Southland, selling it to China, plants to make urea from coal and syngas plants – all very very environmentally damaging, and suicidal on the carbon emissions front.

A somewhat uncertain statistic from UK Coal suggests that here we have a mere 400 million tonnes, but the reserves in Europe and worldwide are large.

As we build our renewables, putting up those thousands of turbines in the North Sea, investing millions, or billions, in wave and tidal systems, and subsidising the rooftop-owning half of the country to install solar photovoltaics, are we really replacing CO2 emitting fuels, or are we just adding more generating capacity which will get absorbed by the future growth that’s so very important to our politicians?

It goes to the very heart of what Green politics are about, and where Green ideas differ from Socialist ones and the rest of the progressive left – growth is the problem, not the solution.

For me, those two messages – work for proportional representation, and remember that growth is not good – stood out. And hearing a pragmatic, inspirational politician who has a wealth of experience talk is a welcome tonic to all the political doom and gloom about. Now that she’s left parliament, I’m not sure what Jeanette will do next, but I am sure it will be at least as illustrious as what has gone before.